29 April 2008


I received this question from Livvy a long, long time ago, and am only now answering. My apologies, Livvy. I'll get to your other questions soon......

Hi Martha,

While rereading your book for inspiration, I came across a few points that I would like some clarification on.

The Overall Story Goal; The Protagonist's Personal Goal; and the Protagonist's Dream.

So what is the difference between a Protagonist's personal goal and Dream?

The grand question is if a Dream is not attainable and goals are,
then how can the long-term story goal be more of a dream than a goal? Don't we want to have a story goal that is eventually attainable at the end of the story resulting from the character's internal & physical journey?

If we utilize a "Dream" as "THE STORY GOAL" and the only way to attain it is with a little magic, wouldn't that be more like "deus ex machina"? A writing device that cheats a reader out of a more realistic and natural occurance of events?

Would it make more sense to refer a protagonist's dream as his/her desire instead?? which can be separate from the story goal and not always attainable. So when this desire/dream is attainable, it gets attained or resolved at the resolution, since the climax is reserved for resolving the Major Story Goal.

I look foreward to hearing back from you soon and anyone else who would like to contribute to this posting, to clear this up for me.

Thanks in advance!

My answer:

Excellent analysis, Livvy! Very well put.

Yes, the character's personal goal and the overall story goal needs to be attainable by the character. The character may need help, but he or she must be the initiator of the ultimate action that creates the fulfillment of the story goal at the Climax. This is true even for children's books and young adult novels. The child or teen in the story may need the help of an adult or the police or a teacher or whomever, but the teen or child must initiate the action and/or the call for help.

Often, the story goal that begins the story changes because of the action that happens at the End of the Beginning (the first 1/4 of the page count for the book) and catapults the protagonist into the very heart of the story world -- The Middle (1/2 of the page count).

One technique to creating depth in a story is to create lots of goals throughout the story -- a romantic goal, a mystery goal, a personal goal, a political goal, a dramatic action goal, etc. Goal setting, as I have said before, is easier for Dramatic Action-driven and left-brained writers, and more difficult for Character-driven and right-brained writers. Goals ground the story and allow the reader or movie-goer to know what is at stake for the character and thus root for their success, mourn for their failure.

I recently finished Cara Black's, Murder in Montmartre. In this mystery, Aimee's overall story goal is to prove her friend did not kill her partner and thus absolve her of the crime. Aimee also has a personal goal and that is to solve a mystery about her father. Both of these goals help keep her at the task at hand even when the stakes are at their highest and the most dangerous.

Dreams or desires add yet another layer. Since dreams generally rely on the help of others or a bit of magic, they can create an added twist at the end of the story. For instance, most writers I work with have the specific goal of finishing their WIP (work-in-progress). Beyond that, most first-time writers dream of securing an agent. Published writers with an agent often dream of one of the following: to win the Pulitzer Prize, appear on Oprah, and/or be listed on the New York Times best seller list.

These writers' dreams are usually beyond the writer's direct control. The writer writes the very best product they are capable of writing. They send out queries. But, as in creating any deep connection, the agent figures into the equation. If they have just signed on a new writer, chances are they won't sign on another new writer right away. If they have a stack of manuscripts a mile-high waiting on their desks, they look for excuses to reject. If they have a full list of writers, they may not be willing to add yet another. And so on.......

At the beginning of Black's murder mystery, she shows Aimee's boyfriend breaking up with her. Throughout the story we feel Aimee's loneliness and how much she misses her beau and longs for love. Thus, when she unexpectedly finds a man who excites her passion, the story takes on added depth and excitement. By Aimee finding love and achieving her dream, an added element is created = the reader is excited about the next book in the series coming out in order to learn if the two lovers last as a couple, or not.

What is your character's story goal? What is her dream? How they work together or against each other in the story overall???